No Funding for Proposed Duluth Train This Year

Minnesota taxpayers dodged another bullet with the collapse of a bonding bill at the state legislature this session.  Among the pet projects thankfully left in limbo? The so-called Northern Lights Express (NLX), a more than half a billion dollar boondoggle that was tracked by the Duluth News Tribune.

Breakthrough funding for the proposed $550-million passenger rail line between the Twin Ports and Minneapolis will have to wait for at least another year after the Minnesota Legislature last week failed to address the project.

Funding for the Northern Lights Express passenger rail line ultimately landed in a proposed off-year bonding bill. The bill was never taken up in a special session which yielded a bipartisan state budget. None of the budget’s fine print was aimed at Northern Lights Express.

MnDOT estimates passenger fares would cover less than half of the estimated $17.5 million annual operating cost of NLX, leaving Minnesota taxpayers to pay millions of dollars to subsidize the proposed line annually.

Much of the revenue would flow to Amtrak, which has designs on operating the service. But as American Experiment recently reported, Amtrak carries a lot of very costly baggage for state taxpayers.

There’s concern that Amtrak could take Minnesota taxpayers for an expensive ride. A sweetheart system established by Congress empowers Amtrak to raises millions of dollars off the backs of states like Minnesota by operating in-state passenger routes like NLX, according to a prominent passenger rail consultant.

“Regrettably, what has not yet been put on the table for the public’s right to know is a piece of congressional legislation called PRIIA (Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008),” said Mark E. Singer, who frequently criticizes Amtrak in the industry journal Railway Age.

Singer maintains the millions of dollars Amtrak would charge MnDOT to operate NLX would be tantamount to subsidizing the national rail line’s financially struggling commuter line in northeastern states at Minnesota taxpayers’ expense. Amtrak lost $168 million in 2018.

MnDOT planners have kept NLX chugging along since about 2010 through various environmental studies and other paperwork. But the lack of a bonding bill will stall their efforts in Washington at least temporarily.

The lack of state funding means there will be no federal grant submissions this year. Federal funding is anticipated to pay for the majority of the project on an 80-20 scale, but committed state dollars are a requirement in order to unlock federal funds.

Yet concerns over government waste and lack of need for a train that takes as long as driving to Duluth haven’t slowed down the politicians on board with NLX. They plan to get a head start on next year’s bonding bill by rubber-stamping a new $4 to $6 million request at the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Authority’s next meeting.